Victim or survivor? Writing about violence against women

posted in: copywriting, language matters | 3
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Stop Violence Against Women Everywhere. Photo by Elvert Barnes, 2013.


Here’s a quick post to mark the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence, on a subject which has come up several times for me. When we’re writing our fundraising appeals or campaign emails, how should we talk about violence against women?

This might seem like nit-picking. After all it took a very, very long time for the media, for governments, for funders to start talking about it at all. Surely we should just get on with speaking up any way we can?

That’s true up to a point. But when you are engaged in a fight with such slippery foes as stereotypes and social norms, you must choose your words carefully.

Language matters

Myths and stereotypes which tacitly condone or excuse violence are ever present, and they have a nasty habit of sneaking in to even the most well-meaning campaigns and fundraising materials.

For example, wary of ‘victim-blaming‘ tendencies in public opinion, some campaigns work hard to emphasise the innocence and vulnerability of the women they support. However, this can reinforce negative messages about ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims.

And while painting survivors as weak and helpless may elicit a powerful protective response from your audience, it undermines the dignity, strength and agency of the people you are really working for. When the violence women have experienced wasn’t fatal (and all too often it is) speaking about survivors of violence rather than victims can be more empowering.

Shock tactics

There are good arguments for and against the use of shocking imagery or graphic detail in charity campaigns, appeals and adverts. But something to bear in mind is that violence against women is common. Desperately, tragically common. A substantial portion of your audience will have experienced violence, some may currently be in a violent situation, such as a relationship with an abuser.

For many people, the legacy of violence includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which frightening flashbacks can be triggered by descriptions, images or videos of experiences similar to their own. While it is important to share the stories of women who have experienced violence, avoiding graphic details or sensational language will minimise the likelihood that a survivor of violence will be ‘triggered’ by your materials.

Focusing exclusively on physical forms of violence against women to make an impact in your adverts and appeals also obscures other dangerous abusive behaviours, which can discourage women experiencing other forms of violence from coming forward for fear that they won’t be believed.

I’m inclined to agree with Regina Yau of The Pixel Project in this article that there are also ethical reasons to avoid shocking or sensational representations of real experiences:

As charities who frequently deal with sensitive, even controversial, issues, we owe it to those we serve to avoid sensationalising their pain. Bad enough that they had to face trauma and obstacles without us using them or their situation as case studies to leverage public guilt. We need to ask ourselves: Are we fighting for brand recognition or are we fighting for real change?

Resources on violence against women

This area can be tricky to navigate, but happily there is plenty of guidance available. Below I have listed some of the best resources I know of. Most are aimed at journalists rather than NGO staff, but they include dos and don’ts, explanations and examples that are useful for anyone writing about this subject.

You will see that there isn’t always consensus around terminology – some organisations use “violence against women” and some say ‘”gender-based violence”, some use “sex workers” and some use “prostituted women”, some say “female genital cutting” others “female genital mutilation”.

This isn’t just a confusion of house styles, each of these terms has a different political association and emphasis which reflect the beliefs and values of the organisation, so it’s worth doing a little research and exploring the language that survivors themselves use.

Violence against women is a challenging subject, even for charity communications staff well used to balancing complexity and simplicity, good practice with pragmatism, respect and ROI. But I believe it’s worth taking time to get it right.

3 Responses

  1. Do you have any other good resources to share? Here’s one from the AVA Project: Guidelines for accurately covering male violence against women, 2013

  2. Lee Webster

    Hi Sarah, great resources, thank you for putting this together! Here’s an example of how we think violence should be represented, very much in line with what you’re saying. Womankind’s new report on preventing violence against women –
    We believe very strongly that it is important to highlight those working to end violence by tackling the social norms that condone and promote it. Often these are women’s rights organisations working hard with very few resources. So we believe in giving them a big shout out in whatever we do. Thanks again for your work on this, will share with the office.

  3. HI there , i am absolutely agree with the suggested ways forward the gender expert propose for tackling GBV around the globe , since the local resources are aware of deeply rooted cusses of any form of violent in societies so by practical engagement of them a giving hand towards this fight will contribute to end gender based violence , in Islamic countries religious leaders role are the key on working with men to end violence against women , in the other side local institutions working as activist is also to be considered on the the strategy fighting GBV by the people . in Afghanistan big donor trust international NGO’s for some standards they have but to bring practical changes on the situation of women local Afghan organization can play a great role, As Afghan gender expert i do suggest to donors considerations towards local empowerment for fighting the battle .

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